28 September 2010


Directed by: Jeff Malmberg
Full credits at IMDb

In the recent documentary Catfish, a lonely wife-and-mother in a flyover backwater invents an intricately idealized version of her life on the Internet. In Marwencol, a damaged man also creates a strangely glamorized parallel life. But his is analog, and thus he is, refreshingly, a mere fascinating character, not an emblem of these techno-times—except, perhaps, as a victim of small town bigotry.

Kingston, NY-native Mark Hogancamp is seriously damaged: he was beaten almost-to-death (and certainly to lasting-brain-injury) by teenage thugs outside a local bar, for reasons that become apparent only gradually. (No, he's not gay.) Afterwards, as a kind of therapy, he began constructing the model town that gives the film its name, which he populates with dolls—often heavily armed dolls—that represent characters from his own life. Around this town, he has created an amazingly imaginative narrative, a WWII espionage thriller in which he stars, in which he has a Barbie girlfriend, and in which SS officers play his one-time attackers. He poses the characters and photographs them in close-up, fashioning astonishing realism—and frequent gore—that’s simultaneously blatantly artificial.

What sets his work apart, one art-magazine editor notes, is the absence of irony. Mark’s work is deeply personal; the dolls don’t foster emotional distance here, as they often do in modern art, but the opposite. By setting his imaginary world in the context of WWII, he creates an easy kind of morality for himself—a fraction in scale of the real thing, like his town—in which he is as heroic as an Allied-Forces soldier, his attackers as villainous as modern history’s worst villains. As such, he reveals something about the weird and possibly destructive ways in which we all simplify the narratives our own lives. We don't just make ourselves the protagonists of these stories. We're the heroes. Grade: A-

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